Dissonant Notes

Monday, August 25, 2014

Non-Anniversary Writing - 'Ceremony' by New Order

What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.

'The Devil’s Backbone'

So the last shall be first, and the first last.

KJV, Matthew 20:16

Like the legend of the phoenix. All ends with beginnings.

Daft Punk - 'Get Lucky'

‘Ceremony’ by New Order is an enigma turned into sound. Like New Order’s monolithic slab of dance angst ‘Blue Monday’, it took several recordings before the definitive version emerged but, unlike ‘Blue Monday’, it was always the same song being recorded and not old songs mutating into something new (Both ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘586’ are essentially ‘Blue Monday’ practice runs). Recorded first by Joy Division and then twice by New Order, it is the second New Order version which remains the most familiar and the one that plays in our heads when we think of the song.

Why is ‘Ceremony’ an enigma? It is both a Joy Division and a New Order song. It is the last words of one group and the first of another. It is both words from beyond the grave and the first noises emerging from a newborn. It is death and rebirth. Never has a song so perfectly played into mythological archetypes yet defied categorisation completely. It sits uneasily with the rest of New Order’s catalogue, yet tacked onto the end of Joy Division’s it would seem out of place. ‘Ceremony’ exists solely on its own terms and in its own self-created context.

The lyrics are written by Ian Curtis which means they qualify as the best set of lyrics in a New Order song. This is not to suggest that Ian Curtis was a flawless poet given that many of his early lyrics fall flat and, in retrospect, reek of juvenalia. Yet he continued to refine and improve and the words to ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ are startlingly mature and world-weary for a 23 year old, leaving behind the abstract existentialism of Unknown Pleasures to paint an earthbound portrait of domestic unhappiness. The words to ‘Ceremony’ are perhaps an unrevisable work in progress and an unalterable point in time, nonetheless they speak of mystery and unbearable visions. The enigma of the lyrics matches the conditions through which the song emerged. The inscrutable is often mistaken for depth but, in the case of ‘Ceremony’, it is nigh on impossible to dismiss the words as throwaway. Their inscrutability occasionally gives way to discernable emotions that tease the listener into thinking that some solution to the enigma might be found. For all that, the song remains stubbornly undecipherable. This is understandable given that they are among the last remnants of speech from a man who could not bear the weight of his own existence.

While temporarily staying with Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis engaged in some past-life regression therapy with Bernard as his guide. A recording exists of Curtis talking in a detached voice about reading a law book and being aged 28, an age which Curtis never came close to. With ‘Ceremony’, the roles are reversed and Sumner is singing words from a past-life with Curtis as his guide. It is left to Sumner to utter these lyrics from beyond the grave, the same lyrics that will introduce New Order to the world. The voice of Ian Curtis was a pitch black cry of desperation. In contrast, the voice of Bernard Sumner has a lightness of tone and an unstable pitch which lends the words of Ian Curtis a measure of humanity often lost in the music of Joy Division. The blank existential chasm which opened up whenever Curtis sang meant that the emotions being expressed often struggled to escape the black hole at the heart of each song. On ‘Ceremony’, Sumner’s delivery make the words seem like both an invitation and a question mark, as opposed to a full stop. As his quivering inflection lets out the words “Heaven knows it’s got to be this time” it lends the song a tearful quality as Sumner’s frail voice enables underground reservoirs of emotion to seep out through the cracks.

‘Ceremony’ is old/new, dead/alive, first/last. It is a kind of phantom caught between worlds, a frozen moment in time that represents neither the music of Joy Division nor New Order. It exists in an artistic shadow-realm that was captured on tape and as such can be repeated at the listener’s pleasure. ‘Ceremony’ retains the same intense musical simplicity that was the hallmark of Joy Division. Nothing more than two chords, the song is held together by the most basic of guitar lines married to a sparse drum sound, and the song peaks in ferocity as a rhythm guitar frenetically slashes away at those same two chords. Something has changed, however, and as such it feels and sounds different from any Joy Division song ever recorded. As for New Order, their music would soon change to embrace electronic music and dance culture. For a while Sumner attempted to emulate the lyrics of Curtis by writing words that implied something dark and ominous while struggling to make sense. He eventually settled in as a chronicler of domestic irritation and contentedness, shedding the existential doom to emerge as the everyman Wallace Shawn of New Order, in stark contrast to Ian Curtis’s spiritually tortured Andre Gregory. As such, ‘Ceremony’ stands alone, inhabiting a barely discernible borderland that could only have been created by events and circumstances beyond the control of the music-makers. It is the sound of wheels turning endlessly, turning forever towards that one moment in time. A moment that was both an end and a beginning. It served its purpose as an escape route into the future and, from the wreckage of tragedy, New Order constructed something that comes close to perfection. New Order escaped, but ‘Ceremony’ reminds us what they escaped from. It has kept its power, its mystery, and its vitality. Few moments in the history of modern music vibrate with such intensity. Listen again, the wheels are still turning.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

‘Blurred Lines’ and the Banality of Male Sexuality

I’m going to be honest here, I initially tried to ignore the criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. After ‘Get Lucky’ I was hungry for another pop smash and ‘Blurred Lines’ seemed to fit the bill. Then I picked up on the rumblings of discontent. According to one commentator the song was “kind of rapey” and played around with ideas of consent. After a few listens I couldn’t deny the song’s inherent creepiness, yet it seemed to me that deciding whether or not the song was an endorsement of rape (I don’t think it is) was not the only thing up for discussion. As far as I can see, the song seems to revel in some very dubious and also thoroughly predictable elements of male sexuality, and worst of all it does so with an unshakable sense of self-assurance.

Some people may question why anyone would be upset in the first place. Didn’t Odd Future build their career with songs about rape? Yes, but there’s a vital difference. Odd Future knew they were courting controversy. It was part of their appeal. Same with an artist like G.G. Allin. His intent was to shock. Robin Thicke seemed totally unprepared for any criticisms of ‘Blurred Lines’. It didn’t even occur to him that anybody would be upset. He genuinely believes the song is sexy. Say what you will about someone like Eazy-E but I’m betting he didn’t pen ‘Nutz On Ya Chin’ because he thought it would bring a little romance to the evening. Part of the problem with ‘Blurred Lines’ is that it unquestioningly accepts its own worldview. It doesn’t think it’s controversial. The song overflows with the confidence of the straight male who is perfectly secure with his place in the world. Yet in doing so it betrays a narrow-minded, regressive, and unimaginative idea of human sexuality.

First off, the lyrics are not sexy. Not in any way, shape, or form. Thicke’s idea of sexiness is getting “blasted” and smoking some weed. We already have a problem. Here is a song that thinks it’s ‘Kiss’ by Prince but is in fact ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk’ by Jimmy Buffett. Why exactly does Thicke want his lady friend to get wasted? So she can lose her inhibitions. So she can let go of the “good girl” that stops her from truly enjoying sex and tap into her inner animal. So basically Robin Thicke’s sexy, playful song is about taking a “good girl”, getting her drunk/high, and then fucking her. No mention of the pleasures she will receive. Nothing about 23 positions in a one night stand. She’ll be wasted. She’ll have sex. One thing’s for sure, Robin Thicke knows she wants it. Is it rape? Perhaps not, but it certainly doesn’t sound like seduction. It sounds like bad sex. It sounds like a man getting off on the idea that a “good girl” finds him attractive. It sounds like a man with some very clichéd views about what women, and men, want from any given sexual encounter.

Why exactly does he want a “good girl” anyway? What is a “good girl”? This aspect of the song seems to tap into one of the most overused and objectionable ideas about female sexuality. A woman is either a virgin or a whore. A good girl or a bad girl. Many men want good girls because it gives them a feeling of conquest and power and because the idea of a mature, sexually experienced woman terrifies them. ‘Blurred Lines’ revels in the idea of the male liberator who frees the frigid woman by getting her wasted and fucking her. Deep down, that’s all she needed. For some reason many men approach the idea of female sexuality with the one thought that women are too uptight. They need to let their hair down. They need to let themselves enjoy things. Things like sex. The problem can’t lie with the man or his limited technique. If the woman would just relax she would enjoy a man taking charge and giving her what she needs. The man knows that ultimately she wants it.

We are at the point where (I hope) rape is seen as repugnant by the majority of men and the idea that, deep down, women desire to be raped is met with real disgust. Yet the idea that a straight woman desires a masculine man to take control and simply give her a good, hard seeing to is one which continues to have credibility. Even though Morrissey claimed that he spent his teenage years in the feminist section of his local library he still felt the need to include the line, “It took a tattooed boy from Birkenhead, to really, really open her eyes” in The Smiths’ song ‘What She Said’. It passes for wisdom and insight to insinuate that the conflicted female merely wishes to give up control and be used as an instrument for male sexual satisfaction. Only through female surrender can either party achieve true fulfillment.

Underneath the cocksure strut of the masculine straight male, however, there lies fear. Repeating “I know you want it” over and over sounds more like something to make the man feel better than the woman. It gives the man confidence in his sexuality. The pornography industry is built on the idea of unlimited male sexual power and its appeal lies in its portrayal of the man being the one who, in the majority of cases, holds the power in sexual matters. The reason Thicke, and a large percentage of men, hate these “blurred lines” is because they yearn for simplicity and uncomplicated sexual relations. Can’t we stop with the discussions about gender roles, gender confusion, gender as a societal construct, and just let a man do his thing? Feminism has by now sown so many seeds of doubt into the male mind in regards to WHAT WOMEN WANT that for many the solution is to get back to basics and just revel in antiquated ideas about sexuality and ‘natural’ male superiority.

The fact that anyone still entertains any kind of notion about ‘what women want deep down’ is an embarrassment. Some men get off on the idea of being cheated on. Does anyone think that’s what all men want deep down? Some men get off on wearing nappies. Some men get off on being humiliated by a whip-wielding dominatrix. Yet only women’s sexuality is ever brought back to the same basic idea: women are uptight and when all is said and done they want a man to be the boss in the bedroom.

Is ‘Blurred Lines’ about rape? No. What it’s really about is how banal mainstream male sexuality is. No sensuality. No femininity. No wit. (The song’s only real attempt at humour is the line “What rhymes with hug me?”. Oh, I don’t know… drug me?). Just boring, vacuous strutting. Get drunk and have sex. Although inspired by Marvin Gaye, it contains none of his tortured sexual pleading or promises of physical pleasure. It merely says “Let me fuck you, I know you want it”. It’s not cheeky; it’s just pathetic.

Honestly, I love blurred lines. Human beings are complex, inscrutable creatures, and that complexity is about the only thing that makes life interesting. There seem to be constant complaints about the modern world and how we address issues like gender, identity, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Some want to run from this, yearning for a simpler time when any kind of deviation from the norm was suppressed and brushed under the carpet. Yet, for those who rejoice in expressions of freedom and the enhancement of individuality, these modern times are a period of great unfolding. The straight white male stranglehold on the Western narrative grows weaker every day. It’s sad that people still have to explain to the Robin Thickes of the world exactly why ‘Blurred Lines’ represents such a problem. Despite its overwhelming success, Thicke seems resentful that the moronic, witless, blundering worldview of ‘Blurred Lines’ should even be questioned. I will say this: if your idea of a good time is getting a woman blasted and tearing her ass in two, then do everyone a favour and stay home tonight.

I confess that every time ‘Blurred Lines’ comes on the radio, I stay on that station. I find the music to be unbearably catchy. On the surface it feels like a fun song. The music and melody have an undeniable pop appeal that can almost make me forget the words. Almost. Yes, I realise there’s an irony in the fact that, despite my criticisms, I still enjoy it on some level. Perhaps the greater lesson here is that if Thicke wasn’t such a dullard, if he had shown a bit more wit and intelligence, then I could have enjoyed the song unconditionally. Every time the song ends I feel like there’s been a missed opportunity, that the whole experience could have been so much better. Listening to the lyrics, I’m sure this is something Robin Thicke is more than used to hearing.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Beck – Song Reader (Faber/McSweeney’s) (Review)

Before this review begins in earnest, I must warn the reader that the writing is not, and does not attempt to be, unbiased. Beck bothers me.

It’s not just that he uses music from African-American sources to provoke laughter yet raids every white singer-songwriter cliché when he wants to get serious. No, it’s more than that. From the beginning, he has more often than not won approval for being some kind of cultural barometer, a sign-of-the-times, this-is-where-we’re-at artist that allowed alternative fans to enjoy ‘modern’ music while also feeling superior to it. This is no place to dwell on Beck’s overall shortcomings, though. Today I must narrow my gaze and focus on his most recent endeavor.

Beck’s latest release is Song Reader, a book of sheet music. When is the actual album coming out I hear you cry? Hold on to your hats, dear reader, and prepare yourself for a bombshell. There is no ‘album’. This is it. Twenty songs of sheet music. No recorded music, just the musical blueprint. This release has provoked much excitement, and generated massive amounts of press interest, due to its unorthodox nature. What was Beck thinking? What’s your opinion of it? With most modern marketing campaigns we are almost forced to have an opinion. To cite one example, many people probably just wanted to shrug at the idea of Radiohead releasing an album free but as internet chatter went into overload many of us felt the need to contribute. Even if it was just to say that we felt like shrugging. In this instance I do have an opinion on Song Reader. I think it’s bullshit.

First off, there’s nothing interesting about releasing sheet music, even in this day and age. It happens all the time. The reason people are interested is because it’s Beck. The concept tickles their fancy. Throw in the fact that it is being released as a limited run via McSweeney’s, that maker of readymade collectibles for the discerning indie fan, and you can practically see the pools of saliva forming all over America. And that’s the problem. Most copies of Song Reader will undoubtedly remain unopened. It will sit proudly on a shelf as a sign of excellent taste and, as available copies double then triple in price on the internet, the various owners can congratulate themselves on the fact that they placed a bet on a sure thing.

Next, Beck is a terrible songwriter. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he doesn’t have any good songs. What I am saying is that his songs rely more on how they were recorded than anything inherently musical. I have no problem with the studio being part of the writing process. I embrace it wholeheartedly. I don’t think songs have an idealised Platonic form that naturally comes out in the studio. I think the craft of the song matters, but so does how it was recorded, and so does the studio performance. Stripped of their performance aspect, Beck songs are sorry affairs. Lyrically, melodically, and harmonically they are uninteresting. Beck selling sheet music is like McDonald’s selling a recipe book. “Hey, we’re not going to sell you the Super-Ultra-Mega Big Mac, but you can buy our recipe book and make your own version.” Those recipes might even look complex on paper, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t consuming garbage.

There’s also a terrible egotistical aspect to this whole thing. Beck really can’t wait to hear what you’ve done with those Beck songs. I’m sure he’ll listen and humbly state that he would never in a million years thought of arranging his songs that way. Well done, anonymous musician. Beck is pleased. Wouldn’t it be better to have people write their own songs? I don’t understand what’s inherently exciting about people recording Beck songs. If he really meant this as a democratic process then surely he would have released the songs as actual sheet music that was available at a reasonable price. $34 is a lot of money. It’s more than double the price of a new CD and, unlike CDs, a used copy of this book will not decrease in value. You can even pick up a lovely signed copy for $50. Democracy should be cheaper than this.

In truth, Song Reader is nothing but a cleverly marketed product for a particular subset of Western consumers. It is guaranteed to sell out and it hasn’t even been released yet. My anger isn’t just about the fact that Beck is releasing a book of songs instead of an album. It’s also the fact that he’s doing it via McSweeney’s, a company whose philosophy exudes a kind of smug, post-modern sense of elitism. I’m sure Dave Eggers could pen an essay on why he thinks Fifty Shades Of Grey is both underrated and culturally important (thinkers like him train themselves to defend the most culturally abhorred product), but when it comes to the McSweeney’s customer, Eggers knows only a certain kind of artifact will satisfy. Expensive, limited, and decorated with comfort-inducing images and stylistic touches from days gone by, Beck’s Song Reader fits all the criteria. There’s nothing populist or democratic going on. This is just a well-executed marketing campaign.

For Beck fans who can’t read music and/or play an instrument, there’s nothing to be gained from this exercise other than perhaps a feeling that Beck is still relevant culturally. They may seek out cover versions but the whole thing will be a nine-day wonder. For people like me who dislike Beck and his antics, it’s irritating to see him being applauded for indulging in such risk-free exercises. To those who point out that by even talking about Song Reader I’m giving it attention, I would restate that it was guaranteed to sell out from the moment its existence was announced. To the people who say that since it has gotten people talking then it must be good, I’d say find the nearest pen and stick it in your eye. One, it’ll stop you from thinking such idiotic thoughts and two, it’ll give people lots to talk about next time they see you. I’m an optimist at heart though, and as such I always want to take something positive from whatever life throws at me.

In this instance I have found something to be very optimistic about; at least I won’t have to hear Song Reader.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Friday, May 9, 2014

Flogging a Dead Force: The Terrible, Joyless Supercult of ‘Star Wars’

When I was young I loved the Star Wars trilogy. I watched the films, I bought the toys, and I froze that Han Solo action figure more times than I care to remember. I would bring my toys over to friends’ houses so we could combine our collections and enact scenes in a more accurate manner. It was all terribly innocent and fun. By the time I was thirteen I probably hadn’t thought of Star Wars for a while. Other things were soon to preoccupy me, things like hormones, orgasms, leaving school, drinking alcohol, finding a job, moving out of my parents house, and various other aspects of growing up. I was 23 years old when The Phantom Menace came out, and I remember being excited. Really excited. Upon leaving the theatre I had a thought that I could barely admit to myself, that thought being “What a load of shit that film was”. Despite my crushing disappointment, I went to see both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, mindlessly handing over my money knowing full well that I would be both disappointed and angry. Here were three of the worst films ever created, and I and thousands like me had made them unbelievably profitable out of some pathetic loyalty to a tarnished brand. At this point I thought Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon was finished. Who could maintain their excitement after being insulted three times over and being charged for the privilege? It turns out that a lot of people could. As the years have gone by the supercult of Star Wars has only grown, and in 2015 there is to be a seventh movie. How did we get here? Why are we still celebrating what should have been a passing cultural moment for a particular generation? The reasons are all ugly, and it’s apparent that many people my age and younger need to take a good, hard look in the mirror and see just what kind of easily pleased, overgrown children they have become . To discover where things started to go wrong, let’s go back to a time when Star Wars was just a successful movie trilogy, and not a smothering cultural albatross.

At the start of 1994, it was still possible to have a conversation about Star Wars without feeling self-consciously hyper-aware of its relevance. That is if you felt like having a conversation about Star Wars at all. It retained a certain cult following among comic book and sci-fi fans but, other than that, it was a pleasant memory, albeit one rarely revisited. Then Kevin Smith happened. Smith’s low-budget debut Clerks made Star Wars culturally relevant again in America by making it the property of dude-bro, apathetic, ironic stoners. The idea of people discussing the morals of killing Death Star contractors seemed to strike many people as hilarious and soon everyone wanted in on the action . Suddenly dude-bros everywhere were declaring that Star Wars was awesome. Something began to creep into pop culture. Discussing Star Wars took on a self-conscious tone, as people took pleasure in over-inflating its importance while denying that any such over-inflating was happening. Star Wars was awesome, dude. Smith struck gold by capturing the first instances of another cultural phenomenon: the rise of the nerd! This nerd wasn’t an ex-member of their high school chess club, though, and they didn’t know how to build a computer. They merely liked comic books, sci-fi/fantasy and, by extension, Star Wars. It wasn’t nerdy in a way that required brainpower. Quite the opposite, in fact. This was everydude geekdom, the revenge of the stoner who listened to metal and watched horror movies. Slayer were awesome, The Evil Dead was awesome, and so was The Empire Strikes Back. Soon enough the Star Wars revival began to gain more tread and it wasn’t long before this revival was turned into profit. In doing so it turned a pleasant childhood memory into a steroid-pumped corporate licence to print money. 

It would be a mistake to lay all the blame on Kevin Smith. Smith himself was a product of a particular time and place, and his movies merely greased the wheels. The nineties saw the emergence of the ironic persona, that hyper-aware personality trait adopted by millions of American teenagers. The ironic persona reveled in trash culture, gaudy sunglasses, and anti-hipness. The anti-hipness is an important and often forgotten element of nineties culture. The ironic persona preferred looking like an uncool goofball than somebody who, like, cared, man! The forces of ironic uncool and dude-bro nerdiness first synthesised in the nineties, and Star Wars was the main benefactor. Which is not to say that Star Wars was trash, but it was a childhood artifact filled with monsters and quotable lines. It was uncool/cool. The fact that both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were well-made movies that many children had deeply loved sealed the deal and gave the whole thing an air of respectability. Whereas something like Tron didn’t truly stand the test of time (its eventual sequel was one of the many nadirs for this narcissistic, childhood-obsessed generation), the first two Star Wars movies were perfectly executed, exciting, and memorable. (Return of the Jedi in comparison barely survives the glow of childhood memories and its leaden acting and lazy plot are the first signs of rot in the franchise). 

As the influence of American ‘alternative’ culture seeped into Britain, Star Wars conversations on both sides of the Atlantic shared the same self-conscious air. In place of innocent enjoyment, there were bug-eyed, mannered declarations of love. All of a sudden Star Wars became unbearably meaningful as everybody forgot that, for many years, the trilogy was barely discussed. Overnight, it was as if Star Wars had always held sway over the hearts of everyone, all the time, and people could barely contain themselves. The franchise made the all important leap from merely being a loved cultural artifact to being an untouchable, sublimated product. When discussing Star Wars, people were not merely discussing the movie, they were saying something about themselves. Communication existed beyond words. Star Wars enabled people to consume their own gestures, to feel a glow simply by invoking its holy name. In one glorious instant, childhood, product, and persona merged triumphantly into a fetishised singularity. Thus was born the unthinking, commodity-hungry über-nerd.

Before the disastrous prequels, each of the original movies was revamped as a ‘Special Edition’ and re-released into theatres. The results were awful. Instead of merely touching up the colour and sound, original producer and owner of the franchise George Lucas made huge changes which included new scenes with additional dialogue. The additions added nothing and were generally looked upon as pointless and even harmful. Despite this faux pas, nothing could quell the excitement for The Phantom Menace which came out in 1999. The movie exceeded all expectations in terms of how dreadful it was. Completely lacking in memorable action or dialogue, it was dull, flat, and worthless. The follow-ups were no better, and some of the dialogue was excruciating (“ Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo; so long ago when there was nothing but our love.”). Would it surprise you to learn then that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith are all sitting comfortably in the top 100 highest grossing movies of all time? Sorry to get all Kanye West here, but OF ALL TIME!!! How could this happen that these terrible movies are amongst the most successful ever made? The reason is simple: when it comes to Star Wars, it simply does not matter if the product is good or bad. All that matters is that it has the name Star Wars attached. The unthinking devotion of the Star Wars fan means that considerations such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are unimportant. All that matters is that new Star Wars product is available.

The Star Wars revival also helped usher in the great cultural regression back to childish pleasures, under the suddenly acceptable guise of nerdiness. Before the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, before the endless onslaught of comic book/superhero adaptations, before Harry Potter, there was Star Wars. The reemergence of Star Wars fandom that occurred in the late nineties allowed for the creation of a great monolith of taste. This monolith demanded familiarity and an absence of psychological depth. Since 2000 there have been seven X-Men movies and since 2002 there have been five Spider-Man movies. We have Transformers. We have Iron Man. We also have reboots, that awful word that has its origin in computing, designed to make nerds feel a warm inner glow about watching a variation on the same thing again and again. In case anybody thinks I’m exaggerating, assuming things like Star Trek and Batman have always been loved, the difference in terms of monetary reward between now and then is staggering. The two recent Star Trek reboots are the most financially successful Star Trek movies ever made by some margin, and The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises have made more money than every other Batman movie combined. The Superman reboot seems to be the only franchise which has not outstripped its predecessors, but both movies still scored huge at the box office. The Spider-Man franchise has already had time for a reboot. Nobody seems to mind.

So, now we have a huge block of people who will pay money to see anything comic book/childhood-related. Throw in the amount of adults enjoying Young Adult novels and movies, and it appears this grand fetishisation of childhood paraphernalia is now the defining cultural phenomenon of the new millennium. All of these movies seem to share a humourless, po-faced seriousness, with characters wrestling with their ‘destiny’. Psychological depth is provided by the most superficial of moral dilemmas. What must a character do to fulfill their destiny? Does doing good also involve hurting people? Spaceships with moral dilemmas. Superheroes with moral dilemmas. As British writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker explained:

“Calling Batman ‘the Dark Knight’ is like calling Papa Smurf ‘the Blue Patriarch’: you're not fooling anyone. It's a children's story about a billionaire who dresses up as a bat to punch criminals on the nose.”

What is apparent is that these self-proclaimed nerds are the least discerning movie fans in the history of cinema. Even Rocky fans got bored by the third installment. The connecting of the word “nerd” with comic books, and superheroes, and even books like Harry Potter, gives a false indication of intellect. This is unfortunate given that these movies are completely free from intellectual content. They are big-budget children’s stories appealing to, at this point, generations of people who see no need to develop emotionally and who demand familiarity and predictability at every turn.

A particularly off-putting aspect of this now ubiquitous nerd culture is the overwhelming misogyny. Women in comic books and sci-fi/fantasy are generally presented as hyper-attractive, perfectly constructed goddesses whose breasts can barely be contained. The moment a woman actually chooses to dress like that in real life, however, is the moment when she will be cast out of the nerd club. Memes, internet comments, websites, and even comic book artists mock attractive women who dare define themselves as nerds. No, only men know what nerd women look like. These pathetic, insecure men feel threatened by the involvement of women, especially attractive ones who *gasp* may dress in ways that enhance their attractiveness. The nerd credentials of men are never called into question, only those of women. Then there is the outcry whenever a non-white cast member is included in a fantasy/young adult/sci-fi movie. Accusations are made of PC pandering, of being ahistorical, or of altering the comic-book canon. Just ask Idris Elba about when he was cast in Thor. I mean, obviously it’s quite alright for everybody in a Nordic-based movie to speak English, but if you include a black guy, that’s just wrong. Time and again the inclusion of a non-white cast member creates controversy, and nastiness ensues. Outside of the Tea Party, it’s hard to think of another group of people who indulge in misogyny and racism so freely as comic book/fantasy nerds.

There is a general feeling that has existed in pop culture these past few years, that feeling being that the nerds have won. What has this victory given us? A stunted emotional outlook. A demand for familiarity (11 of the 12 highest-grossing movies of the 2010’s are sequels, Young Adult adaptations, comic book adaptations, or reboots). A demand for predictability. Very public displays of racism and misogyny. The budgets and profit margins of these films are astronomical but, outside of perhaps the Nolan Batman movies, it is a fact that none of these creations will survive the most basic of critical scrutiny from upcoming generations, and future landfills overflowing with unwanted DVDs will testify to their general worth. So you can add accelerated environmental destruction to the list of nerdish victory spoils (the only thing they like recycling is ideas and plot lines). With all this in mind, what can we expect from the next Star Wars movie helmed by J. J. Abrams? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. It will not be great in any objective sense. At best it will be a functionally pleasant way to waste two hours. In reality, though, it will make money no matter what. It will fulfill its purpose and, in doing so, it will inspire endless internet chit-chat and another round of overused references as people old enough to know better bring themselves to one more dry, joyless Star Wars-derived orgasm. There will be countless empty, redundant gestures of approval, along with impotent anger and bickering over horrifyingly inconsequential aspects of the movie that will help to reinforce some misguided idea of nerdiness. It will be hideous.

If you are in your mid 20s or older, I have news for you: your childhood is well and truly over. It’s actually been over for a while, but I wanted to give as much leeway as possible. Time to grow up. (Honestly, if you went to see that Tron sequel you should be fucking ashamed of yourself). Let other people be young now. You squeezed every last piece of joy out of your pre-adult years but still you want more. You want more representations from your childhood reproduced over and over and over again, in ever more expensive and charmless tributes to a collective unwillingness to grow. The last good thing from the Star Wars franchise came out in 1980. That was 34 years ago. Time to move on. Time for new ideas. We are rats pushing buttons looking for that same reward time and again, but we are being handed dust and shit. At this point Star Wars is a smothering, over-familiar cultural high-five that exists on some barren field of existence where cerebral activity is banished. It needs to die. It won’t, though. It will thrive and bring profit which is the only thing that really matters. The Hollywood studios found a way to turn the public into an unlimited cash machine and they are in no mood to change course. The magic that many felt upon watching Star Wars for the first time has been transformed into a repulsive monster that will not give up. What childhood representations will coming generations want to see on the big screen? The same as the Star Wars generation (those born between around 1965 and 1990), whose narcissistic refusal to grow up has condemned future generations to watch the exact same images revamped and only slightly rewritten. No new images have been allowed to come into existence. French philosopher Camus famously said “A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. For those of us immersed in Western culture, that work is complete. Those images are the comic book superhero, the wizard, and the spaceship. Safe from the whims of taste, we can watch another Star Wars movie, switch off our minds and merely exist and consume. I can’t help but think that our childhood selves hoped for a somewhat better future than this.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Some Random Thoughts On ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ And Paul Simon In General

I have of late, but why I know not, become obsessed with the song ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ by Paul Simon. Where did this obsession come from? I have no idea. I heard the song randomly one day and, although it was a song I was already familiar with, for some reason it managed to take up residence permanently in my brain. Something about the chord progression and the melody tinged with melancholy made me want to listen. And listen. And listen. At some point, it struck me that the lyrics were not as straightforward as they seemed. The more I listened the more I became convinced that the words were not only brilliant but also quietly devastating. Was this the darkest and most misunderstood song ever written? Something tells me you aren’t convinced. Let’s go through this carefully so I can make my case.

I met my old lover
On the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me
I just smiled
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers
Still crazy after all these years

Pretty simple. Two old lovers meet. They share some laughs and discover that they’re still crazy about one another. Except that’s not the case. As we will soon see, the song’s narrator is referring to himself alone and he doesn’t seem the least bit interested in love. So if it’s not about love, then what is going on? The situation being described is not crazy. Not in the least. Will the next verse give us a clue?

I’m not the kind of man
Who tends to socialize
I seem to lean on
Old familiar ways
And I ain’t no fool for love songs
That whisper in my ears
Still crazy after all these years

Spot any craziness in these lines? Yeah, me neither. This appears to be the opposite of crazy. It’s mundane. Why would somebody describe their encounters with normal everyday situations and then call themselves crazy? Why indeed. They’d have to be delusional. What if the narrator of the song were fooling themselves? What if they were so incapable of action, of taking any steps to improve his life, that they had sunk into an emotional morass. What if their cynicism and disdain for vulnerable situations had led them to a life of nothingness, yet somehow they still imagine they are something of a character? Their mundanity has led them to re-imagine their weaknesses as virtues, thinking of themselves as an eccentric as opposed to an emotionally paralyzed misanthropist. Yet from time to time, the veneer crumbles.

Four in the morning
Crapped out, yawning
Longing my life away
I’ll never worry
Why should I?
It’s all gonna fade

Middle of the night. Can’t sleep (again). An admission. A sign of vulnerability. Here is a person gazing at life longingly, wishing they could act to free themselves from their self-imposed exile. Then in a blink it’s gone. No need to worry, we’ll all be dead one day. Cynicism emerges triumphant.

Now I sit by my window
And I watch the cars
I fear I’ll do some damage
One fine day
But I would not be convicted
By a jury of my peers
Still crazy after all these years

Life goes on. The narrator continues to be a spectator. One day they’ll show everyone. One day they’ll make a real impact. Yeah, still the same old crazy guy, slowly dying. If my interpretation of the song is correct then it truly is one of the most spirit crushingly sad songs ever penned. Not in an obvious way. Not in a way that draws attention to itself. The melody carries you away from the sadness and replaces it with a wistful melancholy that could be mistaken for a love song. Don’t be fooled though, there’s darkness under the veil.

I begin to ponder why Paul Simon has been denied a place amongst the most elite and revered North American songwriters. Dylan and Young are seen as authentic because they have denied their middle-class roots and have embraced some fantasy persona of a down-home, tell it like it is character who rails against the modern age. Simon is shown less love because he doesn’t shy away from his middle-class roots. Indeed he embraces them. Since the vast majority of middle-class music fans live in denial of their upbringing and instead foster some vaguely anti-materialistic, anti-intellectual approach to life and art then Paul Simon is more a reminder than an escape. Musically, Simon has explored reggae, Afro-pop, jazz, electronica and modern classical to name some of the more obvious examples, while Dylan and Young have remained defiantly conservative in their approach, not counting Young’s cack-handed attempt at electronics. So he has a lite-jazz saxophone solo? Well David Bowie used David Sanborn on Young Americans, and nobody seems to mind Destroyer’s saxophone solos.

Don’t get me wrong, Simon has his fans among the post-Garden State/wistful indie dreamers brigade and among the writers of adult-orientated rock publications, but he deserves better than that. His lyricism is subtler than most give him credit for but his thoughtfulness comes across as grown-up and not rock‘n’roll. Not earthy. Joni Mitchell has suffered critically for a lot of the same reasons, while her excursions into jazz-pop still give many the shivers. He is lambasted for his pretensions while Dylan and Young are forgiven for their banalities. Apparently it’s better to be consistently trite than occasionally falter under the weight of your artistic vanity.

The beauty of song interpretations is that you can be wrong. Maybe I’m projecting here. Maybe I’ve just reached that point in my late 30s where I perceive the icy hand of mortality on my shoulder and I feel my youthful enthusiasm wane and in response I reach out for those Paul Simon albums to comfort me in my unstoppable decline and as a result read my own situation into his lyrics. I can only hope not. I mean yes, I haven’t made writing and recording music my life as I thought I would in my teens. There’s still time though. Despite all the distractions and troubles life has thrown at me, and despite my tiredness at the end of each day, I still feel that I have a lot to give. Granted, too much of my time is spent working, or time wasting on the internet, but don’t let that fool you. I’m still, what’s the word? No, not crazy. Surviving. That’ll do for now. It’ll have to.

(This article originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Review Of ‘Muchacho’ By Phosphorescent Based Only On The Front Cover

Is it irresponsible to write an album review without having heard a single note from said album? Maybe. It would probably depend on the album. Can you use an album cover to penetrate deep into the very core of the music and somehow extract its essence? I believe in some instances you can. I believe the album Muchacho by Phosphorescent provides us with one such example. Take a look at that album cover. I mean really look at it. Truly it is repulsive. The head tipped back just right, fingers on the brim of the cowboy hat. Wasted smile, wasted beard. Half-naked women frolic on a bed in the background. What message is this cover trying to get across? Clearly this image was not chosen at random. Far from it. The image was chosen because it encapsulates in some way the spirit of the music. It provides clues that reveal how the music should be received.

So here’s how I think the author of the album wishes us to interpret the front cover. This album is a modern Americana creation. The songwriter of Phosphorescent wants us to see him as a drunken philosopher, passed out in the gutter but spewing out wisdom. He is a barroom poet, ever ready to dish up tales of heartbreak, loneliness, and excess. Part Bukowski, part Willie Nelson, and part Townes Van Zandt. Yet with a keen eye you can see beyond this approved interpretation and discern something else. You can see the rotten core of Americana and the banalities it trades in. You can all but peek into the masturbation fantasies of a million bearded dudes across America who feel that by fleeing their suburban roots and adopting a ready-made country dude-bro vibe they can approximate some kind of authenticity. Within the unchallenging, lazy observations of indie country that seldom stretch beyond bleary-eyed regret or wide-eyed (but ‘hard-earned’) wonder, the modern Americana dude can feel that they are partaking in the simple truths of life away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘rat race’. The guy in Phosphorescent is just a good ol’ boy, never meanin’ no harm.

Why should I listen to this music? What will it give me other than nausea? Why must we retread these retreads? Every picture tells a story and that front cover tells a pitiful one. The sad thing is more than one of these dreadfully posed pictures is now doing the rounds. For all I know there are dozens in the sleeve notes. Same wasted smile. Same fingertips on the cowboy hat. Same beard. Same naked women.

I’ve decided there’s no real need to actually listen to the music because the clichéd cover reveals everything. Safe, comforting images that titillate and excite only those listeners whose thinking process has been replaced by some country-dude false consciousness. Must we have another album with a back-story that involves heartache and getting away from it all in order to fill the empty spaces of the music? Is it wrong to review an album without having listened to the songs? Perhaps, but it’s much worse to revel in cozy banalities. Ask yourself which of the two activities makes you angrier and get back to me.

(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Nationalism, 'Braveheart', and the Scottish Independence Debate

When asked for his opinion on Scottish independence in a recent Daily Record interview, Bobby Gillespie, lead singer with Primal Scream, stated:

“We can’t be nationalistic about it. Nationalism has never done it for me. It leads to fascism.”

Gillespie is seen by some poor souls as a political firebrand but his thinking in regards to nationalism is predictably thoughtless. More disappointing are the opinions of comedian Billy Connolly, who dismissed the Scottish Parliament as a “wee pretendy parliament” and went on to say:

“I hate nationalism. If you look at the history of nationalism, you will find the history of war and horror.”

To be fair to Connolly, he has since refused to have anything to do with the No campaign and publicly stated that he will happily endorse whatever decision Scottish voters decide to make. The main purpose in quoting him was to highlight a disturbingly commonplace view in regards to nationalism that exists in the UK. This view paints nationalism as a fascistic, anachronistic, and dangerous philosophy. The reason why is because nationalism is consistently equated with Hitler and the Nazi Party. All other instances of nationalism are forgotten and, without fail, the Nazi Party are wheeled out. What this viewpoint fails to do is separate the race-based nationalism of the Nazi Party from the modern civic nationalism of the SNP. What it also fails to do is recognise that more often than not nationalism is the end result of war and colonialism, not the cause.

The modern nation-state is a relatively young creation. In Europe, there is a tendency to confuse tribal groupings and early administrative regions with nation-states. The modern German nation came into existence in 1871, but people talk of Germany as if it has existed since time immemorial because of the existence of Germanic tribes and the Holy Roman Empire. Modern Italy was born in 1861. These modern nation-states came into being as a result of people joining together for the common cause of establishing sovereignty after suffering domination under a foreign overlord. Again and again nationalism was forged under the anvil of an outside threat. The great irony of the current Scottish independence debate is that, by scorning Scottish nationalism, voters are passively throwing their hat in with perhaps the most murderous and destructive nationalism in the history of the modern era: British nationalism.

When Winston Churchill said "It makes me sick when I hear the Secretary Of State say of India, 'She will do this,' and 'She will do that.' India is an abstraction.... India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator”, he failed to notice the great irony in his statement. The British Empire created Indian nationalism by attempting to subdue and rule the people in the geographical region known as India. Indians united against the British Raj. Irish nationalism was the result of British rule. America was born as an act of resistance against Britain. Nationalism has always been a bulwark against oppression. Is it any wonder that so many in Britain speak derisively of nationalism (unless it is the unspoken but always superior British kind)? Nationalism destroyed the British Empire. Nationalism broke up the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland. Nationalism is now threatening the very notion of the United Kingdom.

So when does nationalism become toxic? When it becomes race-based. The Germanic nationalism that flourished under Hitler was a perfect example of tribalism and race-based nationalism (and a culmination of centuries of European anti-semitism). The relationship between race-based nationalism and civic nationalism is as close as the relationship between a totalitarian state and a modern liberal democracy. Anyone using Stalinist Russia to dismiss any and all forms of government would rightfully be dismissed. Yet those who invoke Hitler at the mere mention of nationalism are given an audience. British nationalism, with its barely concealed white supremacy and history of oppression, war, and colonialism, is closer in spirit to Hitler than Scottish nationalism. The only reason the British Empire faltered was because oppressed people fought back. Britain did not recede out of some innate sense of decency and fair play; it was beaten back by rising tides of nationalism.

With that in mind, is Scottish nationalism race-based? Absolutely not. When Scottish author William McIlvanney gave a speech in 1992 before a crowd of Scottish nationalists he famously stated “Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition”. The response was cheering and applause from the listeners -- hardly the Beer Hall Putsch. Being Scottish does not mean being Celtic. Yes, ancient Scotland was created by a uniting of Scots and Picts, but for a true picture of Scottish genetics you have to throw in a bit of Danish, some Norwegian, some Anglo-Saxon, and some Norman. For a more modern view, add a lot of Irish, some Italian, some Lithuanian, some Polish, some Jewish, some Pakistani, some Chinese, some Indian, some African, some Caribbean, and a lot of English. In truth, you are more likely to hear complaints about too many immigrants from Unionists rather than Scottish nationalists. These same Unionists claim that Scottish nationalism is anti-English, while at the same time denying that a sizable aspect of Scottish society is anti-Irish. Nobody would be so foolish as to claim that Scotland does not have problems with racism, but it is a fact that extremist parties like the UKIP have no foothold in Scotland, and any people that do support them are much more likely to be waving a Union Jack than a Saltire.

British nationalism is also dangerous because when it looks in the mirror it does not recognise its own reflection. Despite invading the vast majority of the globe, many Brits seem to think that British nationalism does not exist. There is a notion that British identity is merely an evolved point that all will reach when they outgrow such squalid notions as nationalism and race. Scots who speak of rejecting independence by rejecting Scottish nationalism clearly agree with such a notion, but what they fail to acknowledge is that choosing British nationalism means siding with a more powerful nationalism, siding with a nationalism that is built on an inherent sense of superiority, and siding with a nationalism which includes a lot more dangerous race-based thinking.

When Margaret Thatcher made her famous statement “There is no such thing as society” she was essentially saying that a people should not look to a government for help. Her philosophy was that government protected private property and the free market and everyone else was on their own. This same philosophy was contradicted by the power she wielded while Prime Minister. She wanted to wean Brits from welfare while, at the same time, using the power of government to intentionally put thousands out of a job. The influence, wealth, and property of the British aristocracy was protected. The privileges of the Royal Family remained in place. The poor had to make do. Her larger context was that the individual was the only true agent in society. Neighbourhoods, communities, counties, regions, and nations were merely historical accidents. While Conservatives endorsed this philosophy in principle, they did so draped in a Union Jack. Mutterings about the French and the Germans and the EU were made with the implication being that Britain was superior because it had moved beyond nationalism. Britain must be Great again by telling mainland Europe to mind its own business and let Brits run their own country. This viewpoint was not seen as dangerous nationalism. Yet, when the SNP makes gains in Scotland on a philosophy of civic nationalism, they are routinely compared to Nazis (and accused of being bullies).

The end of nationalism would be convenient for neo-liberal proponents of globalisation who wish to make every citizen of earth forget their communal and national ties and become wealth-seeking individuals. Communities and nations with a strong bond threaten the entire notion of globalisation. With these thoughts in mind, the tendency to equate Scottish nationalism with German nationalism of the Third Reich becomes more sinister. Scottish independence will apparently leave Scotland less protected from a military standpoint. So a philosophy of less militarism is analogous with Nazi Germany? The SNP supports a more open immigration policy, the exact opposite of Nazi Germany. Let us have no more talk of nationalism meaning fascism. It is an empty argument from people who do not even believe what they are saying. It would be an insult to compare Indian nationalism to Nazi Germany. Attempts to tar Scottish nationalists with the same brush should be met with contempt.

The other charge laid at the feet of nationalism is its anachronistic and emotive nature. Critics of Scottish independence constantly invoke Braveheart, that Hollywood travesty based on the life of Scottish folk hero William Wallace. It isn’t going too far to say that it is an obsession for many No supporters. Scottish (not British) nationalism is seen as not only highly fascistic but also childish and sentimental. The main problem with this argument is how completely and utterly false it is. The Yes campaign has appealed to voters on any number of issues, from democratic to economic ones, yet to many No supporters the Yes campaign is fueled by Braveheart-derived sentiments. This is nothing but a cheap ploy that seeks to undermine calls for real democratic maturity. It attempts to paint nationalism as a thing of the past instead of a modern development. The fact that Scotland was one of the earliest European nations to declare itself independent (after uniting against English invaders) should not fool anyone into thinking that nationalism is a despicable trait to be left behind. On the contrary, nationalism is a stage all modern nation-states must pass through.

Scottish nationalism fell by the wayside after Scotland came under the umbrella of the United Kingdom. The energies released by the Union with England in 1707 produced the Scottish Enlightenment, but soon after Scotland found itself bereft of a sense of culture. Walter Scott looked to the romance of the highlands in order to drape Scotland with tartan and, while this provided Scotland with an identity distinct from England, Scottish writers and artists after Sir Walter found themselves ignored or marginalised. Irish writer John Millington Synge wrote that one the weaknesses in the writings of Goethe was that he had “no national and intellectual mood to interpret”. This same criticism could be made of Scottish writing after the Scottish Enlightenment had become a memory. Celebrated British novels tended to be English, and it could be argued that Scotland did not produce a Joyce or a Yeats as no national mood existed. While Scottish businessmen used their British identity to get a leg up in the colonies, Scottish culture suffered under the Union. The Scottish people were British in a legal sense, but they could never be representative of Britain. Only the English could be truly British. Scotland has still not fully entered a mature phase of nationalism. It had marched proudly through the door and then promptly got lost as Britishness became a byword for Englishness and Scottishness sat dutifully on the sidelines. It is no coincidence Scottish writing started to regain much of its vitality in the early to mid-20th century as a national mood grew and Scottish identity slowly reconstructed itself.

Those who reject Scottish nationalism must accept that, in doing so, they endorse British nationalism. They are not rejecting nationalism. They are in fact pledging allegiance to one of the most divisive, destructive, and power hungry forms of nationalism ever set loose on the earth. To claim that British nationalism is a thing of the past is to ignore the rise of the UKIP, whose anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalist stance has more than a whiff of race-based nationalism. A strong post-Empire English/British national identity free from triumphalism has yet to materialise. In contrast, the Scottish nationalist agenda is free from race-based thinking. It has produced no calls for less immigration or for the defunding of multicultural programs. On the contrary, Scottish nationalism has an internationalist feel. At heart it is a call for civic nationalism, a demand for true democracy, and a chance for Scotland to break away from a two-party system which has nothing to lose by ignoring Scottish voters. Scottish nationalism has grown according to the desires of Scottish voters and, as such, its spirit is democratic. There are undoubtedly many credible reasons for voting No in September, but a dislike of nationalism is not one of them. As long as Scottish nationalism is viewed as childish or, worse, fascistic, then a fog of misunderstanding will drift through the independence debate. Don’t be fooled into thinking that a vote for Scottish independence is an act of atavistic desperation. The opposite is actually true. A Yes vote has the potential be the most radical, the most democratic, and the most vital vote that you have ever cast.